Interview with Jason Eskenazi on “Wonderland: A Fairytale of the Soviet Monolith” – A 10-Year Odyssey Around the Former Soviet Union

(All photographs in this article copyrighted by Jason Eskenazi)

Eric’s Note: I am pleased to share this interview that two cute dogs did with Jason Eskenazi on his stunning book, “Wonderland: A Fairytale of the Soviet Monolith“. The book is a journey through the former Soviet Union that took Eskenazi 10 years to complete. The original interview was conducted by two cute dogs with Jason Eskenazi in a bar in Istanbul, and I transcribed the audio to make this text-based interview.

In the interview two cute dogs talks with Jason about his background, what got him interested in starting the project, as well as practical advice about how he put the book together, sequenced it, and how to see more of the frame. Curious? Read on.

CK: Okay this is two cute dogs interviewing Jason Eskenazi. Jason, introduce yourself.

JE: I’m Jason Eskanazi, I’m 52 years old. I am from Queens, New York, and was born in 1960. And I’ve been a photographer most of my life.

CK: I’d like to talk with you about your photography, including of course your beautiful book, Wonderland, but there is already plenty of material on the internet. Can you tell me one question you would like me to ask you…that nobody has asked you before?

JE: Why don’t you have any children?

CK: Okay, why don’t you have any children Jason?

JE: Photography takes up most of my time, energy, and money—and I cant afford to have a family. And photography is an extremely selfish profession. I am very selfish in the way I want to keep that kind of secret part of me pure and untouchable and to do that you have to be kind of self-sufficient and I feel like if anything or anybody is impinging on on that kind of core thing it would cause me to lose myself.

In photography I’m always struggling to find that thing and investigate it – and to go deeper. In addition, I’ve been on the road too long already to go back and try to find another crossroad in the road of life. Therefore I feel I am destined to stay on that road, to keep seeking for something— and I seek it through photography. So I think it’s probably too late to go back.

CK: Well I kinda feel the same as well. I would love children but I can’t imagine taking the pictures I wanted to take if I had them. A lot of people manage it though.

Now I’m thinking about what I want to do with my photography. I am often told that I need to move away from the concept of the single image and work on longer term projects. I used to think – until I saw your book – that a long term project involved shooting in a certain area and getting familiar with the people there, with the light, with the flow, with the backgrounds — but I have always found this approach to be too much hard work. I would like to put travel first and photograph on the way. Looking at Wonderland, it seems as though you were adopting this approach. But is this correct? Was your focus really on traveling and living your life and going to lots of different places or was it about photography or a combination of the two?

Jason Eskanazi Wonderland
© Jason Eskenazi

JE: Well in the beginning it was all about the drive to travel. However I have to admit that from the start I was not a natural born traveler. My family would know that I didn’t like to travel whatsoever as I would often get sick when I traveled with them. Nobody who knew me back then would believe that now I have been on the road for so long. The impetus for traveling was to see things—to see things for myself.

When I would read things from the newspaper, I would get very frustrated. I wanted to see the things myself, to be near the action. I had an interest in history and photography and the fall of the Berlin Wall put the nail in the coffin that I was leaving. Then I left, went abroad, and traveled.

Since then I have been traveling with a few breaks here and there. Not only that, but I was in the middle of the learning process. It was a long curve on how to do things. For example, I had no idea how to do projects. I tried to be the classic photojournalist by going out and doing stories. However I found that to be very unsatisfying. In addition, I didn’t like assignments—I felt there was a pressure to take photographs I didn’t want to take.

What I wanted to do is to take pictures and enjoy the process. The more I photographed, the more I began to find myself through photography. I’m naturally shy as a lot of photographers are. Photography was a way for me to get out, contact and connect with people. Admittedly I did that quite late (I was only 29 or 30 by the time I went abroad to shoot). I had been shooting in the US before that, but I had no direction. And when I landed in Moscow in 1991, I really still had no direction. I was just shooting, being a street photographer.

CK: Were you looking for pictures or looking for experiences and stories for your own life?

JE: Well it’s always been about pictures. It’s always been about looking for pictures and learning how to take pictures. Through that process I learned how to take pictures. I also learned through friends and by traveling with them. I didn’t go to a photo school, and photo schools weren’t so popular when I was growing up. There wasn’t many of them back then. You had to learn photography through your own personal experiences. I wanted to have those experiences. It kinda works both ways: Photography brought me into the world to have experiences, but those experiences brought me to take pictures. But I would say the main aim was always to take pictures, not to have experiences, but to take pictures. It’s only about the photos.

Jason Eskanazi Wonderland
© Jason Eskenazi

CK: Moving onto the style of the photos that you take. Many of your pictures are fantastically layered. There’s interest at many different levels within the frame either on the left, or on the right, the foreground, the background, your pictures are – they keep me interested for longer than just a portrait for example. There are always little things to discover.

JE: I would say in the beginning my photos were definitely more one- dimensional with the single subjects. But I learned how to layer photos, and have multiple points of interest.

In some ways it is philosophical sort of question of having at least 2 points of interest in a photo in order to go back and forth on. One point of interest is kinda boring and you don’t really get anything out of it. But when you begin to create a space between two points of interest in a photo, then you create an imaginary space, a space for the viewer to imagine a story perhaps or a relationship between two things.

It can be about patterns of things, about different shapes in the photo kinda connecting, or repetition of form. I would say I am really into repetition of form sort of as a leitmotif in all the photos. So for me, the photo has to be organized. Like a foundation of a house it has to have the composition, the geometry of the photo – then you layer on top of it the emotion.

I like gestures because the gesture brings you into the head of the protagonist in the photo. Some people say that photos don’t tell stories- but there is a notion that you want to be inside a secret of something. Whether the photographer has that secret or shows you that secret or shows you something that may have a secret. And that of course goes with Diane Arbus. I think she said that a photo is a secret within a secret or something like that. And for me, in some ways it is a very Greek notion — the Greek statues are really about the inner gaze, the internal gaze — the thoughtful gaze of the statue of the person, and so the sculptor was able to imbue this piece of marble with a thought, an inner-thought.

When I see characters in the street, I see them like how I approach statues.

In some ways, photography for me is architectural on one level but also very sculptural on another. And as a Greek sculpture might have an internal gaze, so may the person in the photo. You want to feel you went inside someone. Inside their body, inside their emotion, to feel what they feel — because the ultimate result of every good photo is an emotion, not a fact, and I feel very strongly about that. While photos can be factual and though they can be used as evidence quite successfully – I feel for me the result of every good photo is an emotion.

CK: I think your work is neither happy nor sad. I kinda get a combination of both in your work and sometimes in the same picture. I’m especially thinking of – and I don’t know if you remember – but frames 6, 23 and 25 of Wonderland. What emotional sort of complexity or sort of ambiguity were you looking for?

JE: Maybe you should show me the photo it will spark my eye. Or describe them.

CK: in no. 6, for example, you have the guy who is uncomfortably asleep and the naked fat man in the background. And then you’ve got no. 23 – the girl on the movie set who looks incredibly sad looking at the director I guess, and the boy looking very happy playing the trumpet.

Frame No.6 © Jason Eskenazi
Frame No.23 © Jason Eskenazi

My favorite photo in the entire book is no. 25 – in a park – there’s a bench and on the left a couple kissing, and on the right you have a girl who looks pretty upset with her hands over her face. Then another guy playing chess in the background with his hands over his face too.

Frame No.25 © Jason Eskenazi

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not a book of simple images expressing happiness or sadness. It is more about emotion as a concept rather than just images of happiness and sadness. So I guess you’ve answered what your thoughts are about emotion previously, but it is very interesting to see pictures covering different emotions in the same frame.

JE: There is always this sort of balance. We live in a world of duality, and everything has an opposite. So there is male/female, happiness/sadness, black and white, so there is always some sort of duality in a photo. You only know one thing from a contrast with another thing. So maybe you may know happiness because you know sadness.

CK: I think it is important to take a step back. Don’t just zone into the frame to that person who looks happy, because there may be another person in the frame who looks sad.

JE: I would say you have to look at paintings and take a step back or look at cinema (which has influenced me a lot) — and you’re dealing with stories and images. Images are forms that have repeated over and over again in human history. You’re not making anything new, but simply updating what has already been done. To know about mythology and leitmotifs and dreams and these things help you to recognize what’s in front of your eyes when you walk in the streets. For me photography is an endeavor of recognition—to recognize what’s in front of your face.

CK: Is it to recognize or anticipate?

JE: Anticipation is a tool of the photographer—to anticipate a moment. That has to deal with your sensitivity as a human being and your knowledge to psychology and sociology, and what may happen.

Yes it is anticipatory but I think the basis of it is recognition, because you’re not creating anything brand new. The scene is there. You’re using a machine that copies that scene and your talent is how to frame that, what do you put in the frame, what do you leave out?

Most young photographers tend to put too much into the frame, not compositionally but too much knowledge in the frame.

There is an interesting story I have to share. I worked at the Met as a security guard many years back, and I learned that Vermeer actually had too much information in his paintings. He was dealing with paintings of lonely women at tables with lutes and stuff like that—and there were stories of the emotion that something just happened in the room but we didn’t know what. In the beginning he was putting too much into the story of the figures and at one point he painted over them, then the mystery started.

As a photographer if your photos are too obvious then you’re missing the point. Photos are about mystery, about not knowing, about dreams, and the more you know about that—then you can recognize them on the street.

You’re dealing with very ancient motifs and old knowledge—imagery comes before language in the brain. The brain stem is basically about images and thousands of years later, you have language put on top of that. When you are trying to understand things through language you are going down the wrong road. You must go beyond that or before that even and look at things without the ability to explain anything with language. And when you get to that point, then it is a freeing point where you exist in a visual world. And the world of mythology, or dealing with things.

You know the centaur? What is that image? Where did it comes from? It comes from people who never saw someone sitting on a horse (from the east, maybe the Turkish people before they came west—and Mongolians in the east were riding on a horse). So when you see a man backlit on a horse, it looks like a centaur. And that’s when the imagination jumps into something that isn’t real, but makes such a strong impression that a whole mythology becomes real. A whole mythology is born out of these things.

You have to find a place. How do you get to that place? I mean you get to it by knowledge, by knowing things—and being ready to recognize things when you see it. So photographers goals and problems are about recognition, quickness, to use the tools you have been using all along – your framing and kind of the tricks of the trade (the background foreground light and the dark) to create images that are simple and mysterious I would say.

Jason Eskanazi Wonderland
© Jason Eskenazi

CK: A bit more of a practical question about your book. There are certain repeated objects within Wonderland. To me you seem to have avoided obvious connections in your sequencing. Could you tell me how and why you sequenced the book as you did?

JE: When I was photographing in Russia in the former Soviet Union for several years, I had to think what I was going to do with these photos. To me a photo book is basically a triangle — it is my relationship with the people, the Russians in this instance, the people who you are photographing – to create a third thing. So together with the people who allow you to take their photos and let you into their lives, you are then creating a third element which is not you or them but a synthesis of you and them — of you the photographer and them the subject matter you create a sort of synthesis.

Jason Eskanazi Wonderland
© Jason Eskenazi

I was questioning myself: “Who are the Russians? How do they express themselves and what is important to them?” Then it suddenly popped that fairytales were important in describing Russians. They are very close to nature. Christianity is coming out of pagan places and I was using this and at the same time I was wondering how to tell a story and I started to sequence the book as a fairytale.

I had read some classic literature in the dynamic structure of a fairytale (and they all have the same structure). They are mostly about maturation about growing up — and I saw that a fairytale is pretty much about girls – small girls that become women. The red riding hood – it is about a girl that becomes a woman.

For the book I made the very long stretch – a connection between growing up and the former Soviet Union falling apart. I saw the Soviet Union as the parent and when it fell apart – the children (citizens) were left alone.

In fairytales a child or a girl is left on its own through a grandparent or a parent dying –the child goes into nature- and comes into the same side as an adult.

For me it was the same in the Soviet Union. The state died, the children had to grow up, and go into the capitalist-democratic system perhaps. So I saw this great leap and I began to sequence the book in the same way fairytales are sequenced.

So you see in the beginning you see a protagonist (women with the naked back) who looks back on the Soviet Union. And all the women are her morphed into different women. The young girl experiencing the fairytale in some ways.

I made up a story in my head. I first started off by writing it on a piece of paper, and I said this is my fairytale. Then I tried to make it through my pictures- and then I forgot about where they were taken – so I used them just as images. So the pictures have no literal sequence, there are sequences trying to connect one image to the other image.

CK: Many photographers use visual games to connect their images. But you didn’t do that at all- it seems your sequencing is conceptual and based on the story rather than objects or subjects within the frame – it seems at a higher level than mere visual similarities between each frame.

JE: I think it was a combination of things. I am into leitmotifs running through the books (you take one thing from one frame and into another frame but I might put some pictures in between). I am very conscious trying to do this- but the more room you separate them, the more room you leave for the viewer to imagine something. The mistake would be made if you were being very literal – if you were to describe.

If you are too obvious, then you leave no room for the imagination. A book is a sequence and there are many things in life that can be sequenced. You can sequence how does someone brush their teeth? You put toothpaste on, you do this you do that and then it is sequence of events. You can make a book like an instruction manual, but that’s boring because you leave nothing to the imagination.

You want to stretch out the gap between the photos. To where there is some sort of connection but it isn’t an obvious connection—so it isn’t so obvious and a thing about the book is that you group pictures where there becomes a ‘flow’ – and when you stop – then you know you’ve made a mistake you broke the dream of the book.

You want people to go through the book without stopping- and you go from point A to point B or Z because a photo book is a story- it is a visual story – but you want someone to travel through the book. You don’t want them to be a bunch of photos like a greatest hits or something – which most books have been until Robert Frank.

You want a book to take you someplace. It can take you as deep as a novel or a movie – you want to go to that place in a book. So I don’t know, it is a matter of practice.

This is my first book, and there are some mistakes in the book, but I think it flows pretty well. I trusted myself. Trust yourself, look inside yourself for what you feel is right.

Ultimately any photo project that you do isn’t really about the subject matter, it is about you – and revealing yourself. If you don’t reveal anything about yourself, you are boring everyone. It is a confession in some ways.

I’m reading ‘On the Road’ after 25 years, and the book is a confession of Jack Kerouac of his loneliness, his road, and every photographer can relate to that – a lonely road. Even if you are married, the gem you keep as a photographer- you are always on that road, seeking something- and you can be in your background seeking it (or Afghanistan) but every photographer is basically a seeker or traveler and trying to find something.

Through photography, you can find something- you can find yourself as writers find themselves, as poets find themselves, as directors of movies find themselves or gardeners can find themselves- if you are in a Zen thing – you can find yourself in any activity.

Photography is an amazing invention – it is some ways a very unnatural invention of freezing a moment. We were never made to fix images – the brain forgets images – it fades. Like if you are using a bad fixer – images should fade. But somehow we made an invention that makes an image last forever – and it changes the whole mentality of being human, and we are dealing with those things now.

The camera is a magic tool, it is an amazing invention. If someone had a camera 2000 years ago they would rule the world. And now everyone has one, and everyone can take pictures.

© Jason Eskenazi

CK: So why do you take photographs?

JE: The first reason was to get closer to people. But now photography has grown with me, in a way that it has become an investigation of myself. Now I continue taking photos in the hope of describing how I feel. About fleeting life and all the things that plague human beings, about love and death, and photography is capable of encompassing all of that.

Photography has the incredible mechanics of saving and fixing time. And that’s what every human being is concerned about- fleeting time. The camera can, and doesn’t save you from that dilemma but it can delay it and make you look at it and possibly understand it in a way that hasn’t been understood – prior to the invention of the camera.

For me it is a philosophical journey- I think if the Greeks had cameras- that certainly would have been a school in Plato’s gymnasium or something- the photo club. There definitely would have been a photo club in Plato’s time if a camera existed then. And we have them now, and we can delve deeply into ourselves philosophically with a camera.

CK: Thank you very much Jason.

JE: Cheers.

Other Interviews on “Wonderland” by Jason

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